Renaissane Architecture Explained

A stroll Through the Epochs — Renaissance Architecture (15th – 17th century AD)

Welcome to the third article in our series: Architecture – A Stroll Through the Epochs. We continue our series with Renaissance architecture, which is undeniably one of the most influential styles of all and as a cultural epoch, may be considered the foundation of modern western society.

As in previous articles, we’ll revisit the closing stages of the previous epoch to remind ourselves of the socio-cultural environment that acted as the catalyst for these new ideas and ultimately, brought about a new epoch.

The cities and towns of the Florentine Republic are widely accepted as the nucleus of the Renaissance. Notable among them are Florence, Arezzo and Certaldo, the respective birthplaces of three of Renaissance’s major pioneers — Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio.

Portrait of Dante Alighieri

Portrait of Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), a definite synthesis of the medieval view of the world, put the moral order of the cosmos on display. Within the book, hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio) and paradise (Paradiso) hold a place for everyone, whether as punishment or reward for their actions in life, henceforth establishing the principals of how to lead an agreeable Christian life in the late Middle Ages — a time transfixed with the ideal of the salvific afterlife.

Among the many who found themsevles challenged by this worldview, Francesco Petrarca, a scholar and poet, would emerge as “the single greatest influence on the love poetry of Renaissance Europe until well into the seventeenth century,” as Michael Spiller put it. The foundation for this claim is Petrarca’s Song Book (Il Canzoniere), a collection of 366 poems, written over the course of 40 years, which purport his praise of Laura, a woman “too holy to be painted”, and his ensuing trouble in dealing with the contradictions between both the virtue of love and the pursuit of glory through poetry in the face of his Christian religion.

The third major work we need to mention is The Decameron (Il Decamerone), a collection of 100 tales embedded in a framework story written by Petrarca’s friend Giovanni Boccaccio, written in response to the Black Death epidemic that struck Europe in the 14th century, which we mentioned in our article on Gothic architecture and political change in Northern Europe. This book set out to verbalize the tragic nature of loss and the resulting desire to embrace life in the here and now. Consequently, religious belief becomes the satirical source of comedy throughout the work, particularly the disdained sphere of beauty and erotic adventure that would be liberated by the display of the naturalness of sex.

Even though all three men died at least 25 years before the actual inception of the Renaissance, set by scholars at 1400 AD, their contributions to the evolution of the literary and cultural landscape can’t be emphasized enough. On the one hand, they all had written their influential works in their native Tuscan dialect instead of Latin, which elevated this vernacular’s status in such a way that it would serve as the basis for the modern Italian literary and spoken language. But on the other hand, they also paved the way for the fundamental cultural change that came to emphasize seeking paradise in the here and now rather than in the afterlife.

This very notion blossomed in the hands of Greek humanists, refugees of the fall of Byzantium and the Eastern Church, which fell victim to the Turks in 1453, and their local Italian companions, who set it in context with the Greek and Latin texts of the great scholars of Antiquity.

Most notable among them — Plato.

Raphael's painting School of Athens showing Plato among his students

Raphael’s painting School of Athens showing Plato among his students

Within Plato’s concept of platonic love (eros), the arts related, above all else, to the idea that the non-sexual desire for physical beauty was a legitimate way to lead man to divinity. Especially so, as this most pure and chastised form of love, could only be experienced with the eye and ear as all other senses were regarded as being incapable of fathoming such beauty.

Therefore, the Renaissance, in the context of the arts, can be summarized as the pursuit of paradise on earth and the prospect of finding divinity through the creation of physical beauty as envisioned by the greatest minds of Antiquity.

Among the most prolific Renaissance works to cherish this notion, Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera, an allegory of platonic love, has to be regarded as a key work, as it superbly visualizes this concept of a reborn spirit (an idea of Antiquity) that comes to fruition in the shape of the three Graces (the arts) and ultimately returns to the heavens (divinity).

Sandro Botticelli's painting La Primavera

Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Primavera

In the end, it would be up to Giorgio Vasari to term this epoch as one of intellectual rebirth (Rinascimento), which he did, as explained in our previous article, to degrade the achievements of the Gothic era.

1. Early Renaissance – Architecture in Florence

The first prominent figure to emerge from this new culture of humanism was Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), an author turned architect. Born in 1404 to an exiled Florentine noble family in Genoa, he was to be educated by Gasparino Barzizza, a leading authority on the teachings of Cicero, who crucially influenced Alberti’s ideas regarding the role of the architect.

He believed in the ideal of the perfectus orator, who was, by means of his moral, philosophical and rhetorical education, bound to serve the res publica. Consequently, an architect held an eminently political post that made him a cultural founder and preserver, dedicated to offering his work to the urban society, the civitas, as a source of protection and security within which social and intellectual developments could unfold.

To manifest this ideal and to pillory the destruction of architectural remains from Antiquity and the prevailing Gothic style, he decided to write his De re aedificatoria libri decem. One of the first treatise to be inspired by  Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s (known as Vitruvius) De Architectura libri decem (The Ten Books on Architecture), the only surviving major work on architecture from classical antiquity.

Even though this disdain of the Gothic style was shared among a number of his peers, it was the technological advances of the Gothic era that would enable one of them, namely Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), to construct the dome of Florence Cathedral, often mislabeled as the first Renaissance structure. Said to be inspired by the Pantheon, its construction was of a double-shelled type built around a Gothic ripped vault. To overcome the problem of absorbing the resulting forces without the help of the telltale Gothic flying buttresses, Brunelleschi employed a system of stone and iron chains, successfully preventing the “dome” from bursting under its own weight, while maintaining the illusion of a classical dome.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

The first genuine Early Renaissance building was Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. A foundling hospital built on the principals of a typical medieval monastery floor plan, it deviated in employing an axial symmetry similar to that of antique Roman structures. Its most prominent feature, and the only one definitely attributable to Brunelleschi, is the loggia facing Piazza Santissima Annunziata.

Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence, Italy

Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence, Italy

Characterized by its strictly rhythmic arcades of Corinthian columns and semicircular arches and originally resting 7 steps above the Piazza’s floor level like Roman ecclesiastical structures, it would serve as the inspiration for many similar structures throughout Florence and other Italian cities. Among them the two other buildings facing Piazza Santissima Annunziata, which received façades mimicking that of the Ospedale in the 16th and 17th century, respectively.

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata showing the Ospedale on the right, the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (facade 1601) center and the Loggia dei Servi (1516) on the left

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata showing the Ospedale on the right, the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (facade 1601) center and the Loggia dei Servi (1516) on the left

2. Ecclesiastical Architecture of the Early Italian Renaissance

Filippo Brunelleschi’s and Leon Battista Alberti’s works in the field of Ecclesiastical Architecture make for a fine comparison of how the ideas and ideals of Antiquity were translated into Renaissance architecture.

Brunelleschi, the elder of the two, was driven by the notion that after the exuberance of the Gothic there was a need for restraint and order, which clearly showed in his choice of classical motifs combined with pared-down simplicity of form that went hand-in-hand with his minute attention to strict measurement and proportion. This resulted in a close relation between interior and exterior forms and can be easily recognized when studying his modular basilica plan.

Alberti on the other hand was drawing his inspiration from the grander Roman structures, like the baths and palaces, which resulted in his churches being designed using classical motifs in conjunction with elaborate elements like coffered barrel vaults and huge decorated piers.

3. Florentine Renaissance Palaces

These enormous remodeling or building projects required the aid of financially and politically influential individuals, a role taken by the members of the ruling families that represented the dynasties of the Italian city states, who wanted to root their ambitions to power and wealth in a tangible and therefore undeniable manner, which made the medium of architecture the families’ first choice, especially so in the case of their private residences.

Within the changed political climate of 15th century Italy, these palaces had to complement the basic requirement of representing strength and power with the perceived elegance of Renaissance life. This resulted in the creation of a new building type, the Renaissance Palace, usually comprised of three well-defined stories centered around an inner courtyard and located on either a prominent island or corner plot of vast proportion.

To highlight the multitude of possible implementations of this formula, we need to introduce a third member to the group of influential Early Renaissance architects — Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1472). Di Bartolommeo, born in 1396 as the son of an immigrated tailor, made his name as a sculptor in the early 15th century and eventually became friends with Cosimo de’ Medici, his future patron. It was under Cosimo’s patronage that Di Bartolommeo made numerous designs for buildings, a number of them of noteworthy importance, yet it would be the Palazzo Medici in Florence that would manifest his role as one of the formative architects of the Early Renaissance.

Like most buildings dating from the beginning of a new stylistic epoch, Palazzo Medici shows only few distinctly different motifs from what was the standard vocabulary of the preceding epoch. Most notable, the rustication of the façade and the reintroduction of the overhanging cornice as the termination of its vertical elevation.

The extremely costly technique of rustication employed the use of large stone blocks on the ground floor, either formed into cushion shapes or given the appearance of rough-hewn rocks, to mimic the appearance of fortifications and other structures that were to project the image of strength and durability. A prominent Roman example being the Aqua Marcia, the longest of the 11 aqueducts that supplied the city of ancient Rome.

In the case of Palazzo Medici, the ground floor, the public floor of the palace, shows strong and rough cushion rustication and the smallest window openings, while the first floor features a finely dressed stone façade and a circumferential band of tall biforas, double arched windows, that were a typical Roman feature, yet their filigree execution shows a clear Gothic influence. The second floor, the piano nobile, which housed the main living quarters continues with the general style of the first floor’s façade, though it shows even smoother dressed stone, resulting in an almost perfectly flush wall facing.

This early Renaissance formula was also employed for the designs of Palazzo Strozzi and Palazzo Gondi, both in Florence, by Giuliano da Sangallo (1443-1516). Noteworthy for showing the development of a greater understanding of the Vetruvian rules of proportion and style over a short period of time. Although the construction of both palaces began around 1490, Palazzo Strozzi is merely mimicking the style of Palazzo Medici, sacrificing a coherent interrelation of proportion in the process, it is Palazzo Gondi with which Sangallo was able to demonstrate his ability to revive antique design virtues — most notably the incorporation of the window arches into the wall, mimicking facets of a precious stone.

Ultimately, it was up to Leon Battista Alberti to set the standard for what could be stylistically achieved when taking the entire body of acquired knowledge of Antiquity into consideration, which he proved with his design for the Palazzo Rucellai.

The facade, executed as a mural reliefs of modest plasticity, is characterized by its backdrop of stone veneer with channeled rustication, which is overlayed with a grid of smooth-faced pilasters and entablatures. The resulting three-storied bays give the facade its rhythm through the alternation of wide portal bays with taller window arches adorned with escutcheons and the slim window bays. The pilasters themsevles show a variantion of the classical order, as display on the Amphitheatrum Flavium (Colosseum), ith the Tuscan order at the base, a Renaissance original in place of the Ionic order at the second level, and a very simplified Corinthian order at the top level.

All in all a fascinating amalgamation of  the rough naturality of rustic fortifications, the relentless rhythm of the strcutured classical orders and the grand gestures of a mise-en-scène facade displayed by designs like the Library of Celsus.

Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, Italy

Palazzo Rucellai, Florence, Italy

4. Variations on the Classical Vocabulary

To illustrate the wide scope that the architectural language of Renaissance Italy developed, we have to remind ourselves of the typical building materials that each region was renowned for and the fact that every region had a strong desire to express its autonomy with the use of an architectural style that reflected its local traditions and heritage.

Certosa di Pavia, Pavia, Italy - Typical northen Italian architecture dominated by decoration and color through the use of black, white and green marble, as well as red porphyry

Certosa di Pavia, Pavia, Italy – Typical northen Italian architecture dominated by decoration and color through the use of black, white and green marble, as well as red porphyry

5. Ecclesiastical Architecture in 16th Century Italy

With the onset of the 16th century the nucleus of architectural innovation moved on from Florence to Rome, a shift that was not of a sudden nature however, as many Florentine architects had already taken on commissions in the Lazio region before.

For example, Leon Battista Alberti had been friends with a number of popes, held the post of advisor to the Holy See for most of his professional life and even resided in Rome during the final years of his life. Especially the dedication of his treatise De re aedificatoria libri decem to Pope Nicholas V showed this enduring allegiance to the papacy.

All this should prove to be very fortunate for the development of the Renaissance style as Rome was to become one of the biggest building sites of the century. The re-established papal court felt the urgent need to restructure the dilapidated city, which in turn provided the stimulus for numerous commissions from popes, cardinals and new religious orders for both ecclesiastical and profane buildings.

These designs reflected changing liturgical and functional requirements, masterfully incorporated by Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and other pioneers and would result in an architectural language of the High Renaissance that was more significant and studied than that established during the Early Renaissance of the 15th century.

6. Villas and Gardens

Apart from the urban building projects there was also a renewed desire to combine the pleasures of country life, a counterbalance to the hectic town life, with the Renaissance ideal of recreating paradise on earth. This was achieved by creating villas and gardens that combined beautifully decorated interiors with scenic vistas, all nestled in either productive farming estates or in the case of the smaller villa suburbana in vineyards and gardens a short distance from the city.

One of the most famous masters of this particular sujet was Andrea di Piero della Gondola (1508-1580), better know as Andrea Palladio.

In his very own treatise on architecture, I quattro libri dell’architettura, he summed up the essence of what makes a building worthy of praise like this:

“Tre cose in ciascuna fabbrica, come dice Vitruvio debbono considerarsi, senza le quali niuno edificio meriterà esser lodato; e quelle sono l’utile o comodità, la perpetuità, e la bellezza: perciocchè non si potrebbe chiamare perfetta quell’opera che utile fosse, ma per poco tempo: ovvero che per molto non fosse comoda; ovvero che avendo ambedue queste, niuna grazia poi in se contenesse.”

So a building must comprise and value the balance of utility (utile) or convenience (comodità), durability (perpetuità) and beauty (bellezza), requirements that will become apparent when taking a closer look at the rich portfolio of his work. Certainly his most famous executed design is that of the Villa Almerico Capra, better know as La Rotonda. Itself a commission from the retired referendario apostolico of Popes Pius IV and Pius V, Paolo Almerico.

7. Architectural Language in France

Readers who have paid close attention to the varying timelines of each epoch’s development across Europe will have realized already that the Renaissance was particularly slow to spread as most countries were just reaching the prime of their Gothic styles when the Renaissance had already taken hold of Italy for almost a century.

The first country outside Italy to gain insight into the Renaissance style and mindset, mostly due to its proximity and the resulting ease of travel, was France, particularly during the reigns of Francois I (1494-1547) and his son Henri II (1519-1559) who were impressed by the ability to exercise and strengthen political power by means of architectural building programs that could invoke the development of desired cultural and social aspirations.

Among the artists and humanists who were called to Francois I’s court — including Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) who would spent the rest of his life in France — was Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554), an Italian architect with firsthand knowledge of the architectural environment of Bramante and Raphael in Rome, and whose first modern treatise to include illustrations, Sette Libri d’architettura, proved highly significant in disseminating knowledge of Italian High Renaissance forms.

Though it is acknowledged that France responded to the Italian classical style in a more direct and thorough manner than other European countries, it was not uncommon for some locales to adopt classical forms only as decorative motifs.

Château de Chambord, Chambord, France

Château de Chambord, Chambord, France

Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleu, France

Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France

8. Civic Architecture in Northern Europe

Northern Europe, being distant from Italian Renaissance influence and often wary of its Catholic associations, adopted a distinctly Northern architectural language developed during the 16th century, one not influenced by classical forms based on antique Greek and Roman precedents.

One strong local architectural feature, without any Italian connections, which developed throughout this period in Northern Europe was the decorated gable. It was widely used on civic and domestic buildings and as the desire to display civic pride and national identity through architecture was as common a practice as in the towns and cities of Southern Europe, large scale public buildings such as town and guild halls would eventually combine these local architectural features with the idiosyncratic use of classical motifs to achieve powerful and monumental public buildings to impress both the local population and foreign visitors.

9. Decorated and Unadorned Styles in Spain

Spain’s approach to the Renaissance style, called Plateresque, was mostly dominated by incorporating certain motifs into its rich and decorated Gothic style, a practice that would persist throughout most of the 16th century, especially with regard to ecclesiastical buildings.

Royal Hospital, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Royal Hospital, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

However, as knowledge of Italian architecture and architectural theory became more widespread, buildings were constructed with greater regard to the rules of proportion and harmony.

Alcázar of Toledo, Toledo, Spain

Alcázar of Toledo, Toledo, Spain

As a result, starting around the second half of the 16th century, architects like Juan de Herrera (1530-1597) built in a very severe and pared-down classical style, which became known as estilo desornamentado, or austere style. de Herrera is associated with the famous Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the king’s residence outside Madrid and the biggest Renaissance building ever constructed, though he only oversaw the latter stages of its construction after the original architect Juan Bautista de Toledo (1515-1567) had died.

Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

10. The English Reception of Renaissance and the Architecture of Inigo Jones

As we established in our previous article, England continued to favor and develop its own Gothic style well into the 16th century and showed little interest in the developments made on the continent. When the time finally came to take note, the knowledge of classical architecture was not passed on firsthand, as was the case in France and other European countries, but through the filter of its reception throughout Europe. Strong influences came from French and Flemish traits, particularly carvers and other craftsmen, who found employment in England.

Particularly in the east of England, where links with the Low Countries were strong, decorated “Dutch” gables were featured in many new buildings, especially those of a domestic nature, because, as in the Tudor period, little church architecture was built, but several important Jacobean prodigy houses were constructed. While similar in many ways to earlier examples of their kind, a notable change occurred in that their ground plans were now either H- or U-shaped in the interest of providing bold and impressive silhouettes and achieving striking vistas, an ideal very similar to that sought after by the architects of the typical Italian villa.

However, it has to be noted that after this somewhat adulterated 16th century initiation to the Renaissance style there would emerge a very prominent figure who would define a most harmonious classical English style — Inigo Jones (1573-1652). His work was very different from what resulted of the filtered Renaissance style as he visited Italy and undertook a detailed study of ancient monuments and Renaissance architecture, particularly the buildings of Andrea Palladio and his concern with the fundamental architectural truth of buildings, which involved the function, harmony and proportion of the whole, and not simply the addition of classical motifs as applied decoration.


11. Recommended reading

Marion Kaminski, Art and Architecture of Venice, 1999, Könemann, ISBN 3-8290-2657-9

Howard Saalman, Filippo Brunelleschi: The Buildings, London: Zwemmer, 1993, ISBN 0-271-01067-3

Joseph Rykwert, Leonis Baptiste Alberti, Architectural Design, Vol 49 No 5–6, Holland St, London

The Ten Books on Architecture online: cross-linked Latin text and English translation

Quattro libri dell’architettura From the Collections at the Library of Congress


 12. Credits

All illustrations in this article remain as Public Domain or fall under the CC license agreement, in which case credit is to be given to the original author and myself.

Daniel Gerson, Hans A. Rosbach, 3Félix, studyblue, Marie-Lan Nguyen, maff257, Ugo franchini, Benh LIEU SONG, Lumen, Luukas, Lerdsuwa, Didier Descouens, Myrabella

Renaissance Architecture Explained (15th – 17th century AD)
Article Name
Renaissance Architecture Explained (15th – 17th century AD)
Learn all about Renaissance Architecture in this beginner's guide that is easy to understand & packed with useful information.
2 replies
  1. Russ Carswell says:

    People of this era were most simple and perhaps this period was the most romanticized period in history. The colorful renaissance clothings with the combination of simple living lifestyle defines it as the time of enlightenment. The architecture of that time was highly inspired back from Romans and Greeks making buildings in square, front, columns, ceilings type.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Renaissance Architecture (Picture: Renaissance Architecture – Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence) […]

Comments are closed.